Message in a Bottle: Where's Bibi's Voice on Social-economic Issues?

While Netanyahu's lawyer is sent to the frontline to fight off charges of improprieties at the PM's Residence, Likudniks are becoming frustrated by their leader's total silence on these vital issues.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

There were mixed feelings this week at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. On the one hand, satisfaction with the polls, which for the most part placed Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu in front in the election race. But on the other hand, there was worry and anxiety – to put it mildly – because of the growing maelstrom of affairs involving the management of the Netanyahu family’s homes, as publication of the state comptroller’s report approaches, in 10 days’ time.

To judge by the surveys, the allegations of corruption, decadence and greed are not singeing the hairs on the flesh of the Likud ticket under Netanyahu. But to judge by the grass-roots situation, that party has a problem. It’s hard to discern much enthusiasm for Netanyahu, hard to find reserves of energy among the party’s activists.

An MK who is very knowledgeable about the Likud “street” reported to an interlocutor this week that the situation in the trenches is not encouraging, to say the least. Veteran Likud people and certainly those known as “Likud lite” are indicating that they’ve had it. In the end, with all due respect to the Islamic State and Iran, they are the ones who have to cope daily with high living and housing costs, inadequate salaries, inordinately high fees and overdrafts at the bank, and a gloomy and discouraging economic horizon – just like the leftists.

As of this moment, 40 days before the election, the party in power for the past six years hasn’t said one word about social and economic issues. Likud hasn’t published a single plan or called a press conference to talk about the subject. In the past two years, Likud did not hold the relevant portfolios: finance, economy (formerly industry, trade and employment), health, education, housing or social welfare. Aren’t voters entitled to hear the party’s views and its vision on these subjects – what it’s proposing in the realms of housing, prices, hospital overcrowding and schools?

So far, there’s been nothing. Nada. Just abuse and mudslinging at the other parties. That’s Likud’s expertise; wallowing in the muck is what it’s good at. Somehow, its members always emerge cleaner, more discriminated against, more victimized.

Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid and Kulanu are taking the electorate more seriously. This week, the leaders of those parties published working plans – “platforms,” to use rather archaic lingo – dealing with these various realms. One can argue, dispute, or doubt the practical or political feasibility of the programs, but at least there’s something to discuss, to use as a reference point.

Likud’s response to the thorough and carefully thought-out economic plan presented by Zionist Camp’s Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg was: “It’s a check that will bounce.” The finest copywriters must have worked long and hard to come up with that show-stopping punch line.

Well, we can understand Likud. From its point of view, socioeconomic discourse is a disaster zone to be avoided. Even the subjects of Sara and the bottles, the garden furniture, or other accusations from former household employees, however unpleasant, are safer to deal with than awakening the social-affairs genie from its winter hibernation.

A visitor from Mars who happened to have the misfortune to watch or listen to newscasts here would undoubtedly conclude that Israel’s prime minister is a certain David Shimron, attorney at law.

What else could an intelligent visitor to our planet think? Every time accusations and allegations are made against the country’s leader on the subject of improper personal conduct, the person who appears in his defense is the same grim-faced, tight-lipped, mummified and suit-and-tied fellow who doesn’t come across well in the electronic media, to put it mildly.

It’s hard to imagine leaders in the United States, Britain, France or any other Western countries who have been suspected of corruption possibly extending into the criminal realm – as the state comptroller put it – daring to remain silent and stay hidden in their lawyer-made bubble. They would go before the public bare-breasted and reply to every question. In our skewed political culture, we make do with the lawyer as though that were decreed by fate.

This week, Shimron made the media rounds, barely emerging in one piece, but showing the public at large what’s known in Likud’s top ranks as “Bibi’s standard method.” Namely, “Investigate everyone. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e!!!” Shimron demanded what he called a “vertical” and a “horizontal” examination of official residences since time immemorial. That includes the President’s Residence during the tenure of Shimon Peres.

This is Netanyahu’s response whenever he’s compelled to cope with any kind of bad smell, failure or blunder: He sprays accusations every which way, creates a smokescreen, covers himself by citing the deeds of others. Why am I the only one being examined, he cries out bitterly (or, more accurately, the group of rotating lawyers and depressed politicians from his party cries out in his name)? Why are they meddling in my affairs? Because I am Bibi, not Arik! Because my wife is Sara, not Sonia!

Go back 10 years, 20 years, he gets the lawyer to say – to the Mandate period if needed. But why only a vertical and horizontal check? Why not diagonal and parabolic and global ones? Why not wise up the public with comparative data about what goes on in the White House or the Elysee Palace? After all, we, the Netanyahu family, are “refined Europeans,” plus an important American magazine even wrote that I am king.

In the previous government, when the “Bibi Tours” investigation first cropped up, concerning the funding for trips abroad of the imperial family, he demanded vehemently that “they all be examined” – that is, all the politicians, two or three Knessets back. He himself will never be examined on his own. Moreover, he instructed his cabinet colleagues to assail the Maginot Line of the media and to insist that the state comptroller review the travel expenses of them, the ministers themselves, as well, in order to cover up his escapades. They obeyed as though in a trance, and the report about them was duly published. The report about him has been lying in a drawer for years.

Unhappy campers

The Haaretz poll that appeared on Tuesday had a paralyzing effect, with potentially ruinous consequences, at Zionist Camp’s campaign headquarters. A curtain of depression descended on the party’s building in south Tel Aviv and split it into two, reflecting the number of camps in it.

The two-Knesset-seat lead that Likud developed over its main rival in the race, and Netanyahu’s gains with respect to a series of personal parameters (suitability to be prime minister, handing of security and policy issues) over Isaac Herzog cast a pall over the legions of advisers and strategists and admen and talents and wannabe talents who pack the place. Just as before they couldn’t figure out why they were doing so well, now the people at Zionist Camp can’t figure out what in the blazes brought a halt to the momentum.

And when the situation becomes difficult, the difficulties crop up. As long as the polls looked good, the pill was less bitter to swallow. Now, though, the activists are beginning to spew out what’s bothering them: Why were the photographs of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin removed from the stage at the event in which Labor’s elected slate was presented: to avoid putting Tzipi Livni in an unpleasant position? Aren’t they in her league?

And why do they, Labor’s activists have to be the ones to run about in the cold and the rain in order to get Amir Peretz into the Knesset, after he turned his back twice on the party in the past two decades and joined rival parties? Even worse, what about that eternal functionary, the political hitchhiker and fan of trips abroad, Yoel Hasson – for whom Livni, in a move of dubious ethicality, reserved a realistic place on the ticket and kicked out Amram Mitzna? And what is a neoliberal economist like Trajtenberg, Zionist Camp’s candidate for finance minister, doing in a party that until a year ago took pride in being social-democratic?

On top of this, instead of functioning like a sophisticated Japanese robot with a clear chain of command, campaign headquarters is suffering from an acute split personality. The campaign chief, Labor’s Eitan Cabel, assumed his post long after the director general, Shimon Batat, filled all the positions, hired the advisers, appointed the officials, made the assignments, signed the contracts and paid out exorbitant fees. Cabel had to “swallow the frog,” as the Hebrew expression goes, although most of the time he actually looks as though a green creature of that species is stuck in his throat. Only now, with a little over a month to go, is he starting to mop up the mess left by Batat.

This week, Shelly Yacimovich found herself in a similar situation. Herzog appointed her chief of the information unit under Cabel, her great rival, whom she talks to only when absolutely necessary, and vice versa. The fact that Yacimovich finished first in the primary left Herzog no choice in the matter. She is perfectly cut out for the new job, but she too has encountered an existing state of affairs, concocted by Herzog and Livni, while she, Cabel and all the other MKs were busy with the primary.

Yacimovich does not like the campaign and does not identify with it. She finds the casting at campaign headquarters mistaken and the messages inappropriate. And Trajtenberg and his socioeconomic doctrine are not even close to her cup of tea. The nicest thing she could find to say about his plan is that it’s a lot better than Netanyahu’s. We’ll have to wait for the day after to hear what she really thinks.

On top of this, there are never-ending arguments between the heads of the slate over the position to be taken on a series of issues. For example, should the attacks on Netanyahu over the issue of the bottle deposits and the household expenses be stepped up, or should they back away from that nastiness? Last week, after lengthy discussions, it was decided that Herzog would say a sentence and a half on this sensitive issue, and Livni would too.

One can only imagine what Likudniks would do to Herzog if an iota of something like the Bibi-Sara story were to tarnish him. But they are reduced to scrounging in the dustbin of history to come up with scraps from the past, and are battering him brutally for his silence in the investigation of the Ehud Barak fundraising associations 16 years ago. Suddenly, at Likud, they have become purists, law abiders, following the straight and narrow.

Worst-case scenario

At the start of the campaign, Herzog, with a view to the formation of a coalition after the election, instructed his team not to target Yair Lapid. However, given the shift in the polls and the gains of Likud, that tactic now conflicts with the major strategy of Zionist Camp: to emerge as the party with the most seats under any circumstances, even if that entails cannibalizing its presumed partners in the coalition bloc, Meretz and Yesh Atid.

Lapid will soon find himself in the line of fire of Zionist Camp, which he in the meantime has been attacking relentlessly. Meretz is a tougher problem. Zionist Camp needs a left-wing party by its side, both to differentiate itself from the center and to ensure coalition-forming recommendations to President Reuven Rivlin. Meretz is now polling at the equivalent of five seats, but if in reality it receives 35,000 fewer votes than are currently predicted, it would drop below four seats, and not even make it into the Knesset.

Meretz is aware of the mood among the left-wing constituency, which recalls 2009, when thousands of the party’s voters bought the “It’s either Tzipi or Bibi” slogan and cast their ballot for Kadima (then led by Livni). Meretz ended up with three seats. Under the new electoral threshold, four seats, it wouldn’t have entered the Knesset. Today the Herzog and Livni’s slogan is “It’s us or him,” and again Meretz is liable to pay the price.

Which is why Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On let loose a frontal assault on Herzog and Livni this week, for their persistent refusal to rule out a partnership with Likud and Netanyahu in the next government. Gal-On hopes to make left-wingers see that a vote for Zionist Camp is, quite likely, a vote for a unity government, which will be an exercise in paralysis. If this tactic doesn’t do the job, she and her friends had better prepare for the worst scenario of all.

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